September 2015


by Robert Drewe

Another speaker

A dinner date with Billy Snedden

There was once a speaker of the Australian parliament who loved to travel overseas, and who especially enjoyed the sensual benefits that taxpayer-provided travel could deliver.

It was the end of the Haight-Ashbury rock ’n’ roll era in San Francisco. I was living there with my young family, on California and Laguna streets, working as a stringer for Australian publications and trying to write fiction. Out of the blue one morning in August 1980 I received a phone call from Clyde Packer.

This was the first surprise: getting a call from a Packer. Kerry’s older brother had been living in self-imposed exile in California since 1976, four years after his falling-out with their father, Sir Frank, which had resulted in Kerry inheriting the Packer companies.

“Good morning. I’m coming up to San Francisco tomorrow,” Clyde announced from his home in Santa Barbara. “How about we have lunch?”

I’d never met him, but someone had given him my phone number. Out of considerable curiosity – and a sort of inherited Packer-anxiety – I agreed at once, and we met for lunch in Chinatown.

A tall bulky man in the Packer manner, with a very large head, a shrewd grin and slicked-back dark hair, Clyde bore a close resemblance to the American actor Peter Boyle, before Boyle lost his hair and portrayed Ray Romano’s father in the TV comedy series Everybody Loves Raymond.

Another surprise: working on the Bulletin under Sir Frank and then Kerry had prepared me for the standard eccentric and overbearing Packer ogre, but Clyde was amiable, witty and interesting company. He talked about the surfing magazine he’d started up in California. He seemed lonely. He was homesick for Australia and Australian media gossip, and some non-Californian conversation.

Clyde picked up the bill on his black American Express card and then suggested we kick on. He wanted to soak up some local atmosphere, so I took him to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookshop, where we talked about Jack Kerouac and the Beats, and cool literary matters. Then we crossed the alley to the Vesuvio, where we drank beers until late afternoon.

Clyde seemed to be having a good time. “How about we pick up our wives and then all have dinner?” he suggested. Well, OK, Clyde. Good grief. A Packer-thon!

When we met up again that evening, Clyde had some news. “Guess what? I was walking past our consulate just now and this black limo was at the kerb with a little Australian flag flying. Billy Snedden steps out, spots me, and in the middle of Post Street he calls out, ‘Hey Clyde, where can I get a girl?’”

Clyde had further news about the former leader of the Liberal Party who was now the speaker of the Australian parliament. Sir Billy Snedden was visiting California for the World Highland Games (“caber tossing and all that”), apparently an important event on the speaker’s calendar.

“He’s a bit bored of the games. He’ll be joining us for a drink after dinner,” Clyde said. “So will the callgirl.”

After dinner, Clyde, his wife, Kate, my wife, Sandra, and I adjourned to a table at the Top of the Mark, the roof lounge of the famous Mark Hopkins Hotel (Sir Billy’s choice). The fog had lifted; the pastel hills of the city rose and fell around and below us. A light breeze blew up from the bay. The presidential election was in the air.

The Democratic convention had just ended in an anti-climax. The US embassy hostages were still locked up in Iran. When their attempted rescue ended in dismal failure, President Jimmy Carter’s stocks had fallen even further. Nevertheless, the beleaguered Carter had withstood a rather half-hearted challenge from Teddy Kennedy. In the Republican primaries, Ronald Reagan had drawn ahead and could conceivably – to us Australians, amazingly – win the presidency.

The Australian parliament’s chief guardian of standards was running late; the callgirl, Emily, arrived 40 minutes before him. Far from the Hollywood version of a callgirl, she was well spoken and wore a tasteful black dress. Emily looked right at home at the Top of the Mark. She was studying political science at Berkeley, she told us.

Emily quickly joined the election conversation, adding some pertinent remarks. As we waited for Sir Billy to turn up, however, a frisson of amused anticipation was mounting. At this moment wild horses couldn’t have dragged us away from the Top of the Mark.

We saw him before he saw us. The familiar figure was standing at the lounge entrance. Nudging each other, my wife and I watched the edgy adjustment of the tie knot, the practised keen frown, then the recognition of Packer across the room. There was an abrupt little spring of feigned youth in his step, and a momentary flicker of confusion when he approached our table and was faced with three youngish, attractive women.

Although only one of the women had an American accent, and Clyde had introduced them all, the speaker seemed unsure which one was his escort. Had he forgotten, or not known, Emily’s name? Perhaps he couldn’t resist spreading the politician’s charm.

Boldly facing up to his dilemma, he squeezed himself in between the two nearest women, Kate and Sandra, and immediately swung into a routine of rakish chuckles and ploys. He grabbed Mrs Packer’s hand and began to read her palm, then Sandra’s palm, and his eyes twinkled at uncovering their voluptuous secrets. Then he guessed at their sexy star signs.

He dominated the conversation, showering the women with suave innuendo from the Age of Aquarius (very old hat, even in 1980). Meanwhile, his hands were a blur of motion, brushing female knees and patting shoulders with a roguish familiarity. His eyes kept twinkling, as did his gold filling. The speaker was a spruce and eager spaniel.

Clyde watched this performance with quiet satisfaction, allowing some time to pass before announcing solemnly, “Bill, may I present, at the far end of the table, your companion for this evening, Emily from Berkeley.” The speaker pushed back his chair, bounded to Emily’s side, snatched up her hand, and kissed it.

Sir Billy immediately ignored the rest of the table and concentrated his attentions on Emily. But Clyde felt bound to inform her that her date was the speaker in the Australian parliament.

“Oh,” said the callgirl. “So you’re Australia’s Tip O’Neill.”

Sir Billy then revealed a less than comprehensive knowledge of contemporary American politics.

“Who’s Tip O’Neill?” he asked.

Our speaker,” she said. “The number-three man in the United States for many years. If an assassin shoots the president and the vice-president, he’s it. He takes over as president.”

The speaker sat up straight and his chin firmed. “Of course he does,” he said. Then he began to read the callgirl’s palm. In the circumstances, another unnecessary flirtation, I thought.

We all left him to it. Outside the Mark Hopkins the black limo idled at the kerb, its little Australian flag flying in the breeze from the bay.

Robert Drewe

Robert Drewe writes novels, short stories, memoir and essays. His latest novel is Whipbird.

Billy Snedden. Source

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